How have some of America's most powerful membership organizations been able to successfully turn regular members into passionate advocates who are ready to be activated at a moments notice? How have the NRA, AARP, Planned Parenthood, and others been able to build devoted hordes of passionate devotees?
The roots of that passion, and where those organizations' power arises from, may surprise you.
Earlier this year, we exhibited at the 2016 American Farm Bureau Federation Annual Convention & IDEAg Trade Show. It was the second or third time we’ve exhibited at this particular gathering, and we’ve developed several great partnerships from it.
It’s an interesting fit, our loyalty marketing company knee deep in a field focused on agriculture and the nation’s food supply.
But there’s a fit indeed, and the reasons behind that fit illuminate some best practices that any membership organization can identify with and learn from.
Namely, member benefits serve a few distinct purposes within acquisition, engagement, and retention. When they’re built with member needs in mind, those benefits can create an engagement bridge, wherein tepid members can, over time, become passionately dialed in to the organization’s higher ambitions.
The Higher Purpose
Farm Bureaus, like most membership groups, have very high aspirations. State by state and region by region, they’re trying to represent the industry’s best interests with politicians, businesses and citizens. Those educational and political activities are funded primarily by a membership base, many of whom aren’t necessarily involved with any sort of farm or ranch.
As with most membership organizations, members join for a myriad of reasons. Professional associations are full of members who just want to put an acronym at the end of their name, for example. Many Farm Bureau members joined the organization primarily for insurance, others join to show support for local producers.
Regardless of why they’re there, they’re there, and each member represents a chance to boost the organization to its goals. At minimum, that contribution can simply be paying dues, which helps the organization financially. Ideally though, a portion of the member base adopts the organization’s larger goals and chooses to become involved personally.
This means organizations are faced with a challenge of maintaining at least a basic level of engagement. As Robbie Kellman Baxter pointed out, there must be constant innovation and value delivery to earn a member’s dues year after year.
Obviously, innovation is easier for Netflix to pull off than a Farm Bureau or a regional professional association. Showing an ROI on public education and policy action is challenging, to say the least.
So the burden becomes this: how can an organization add value that keeps members active and engages them enough to pay attention to the higher purposes the organization has?
The Benefit of Benefits
Consider two of the most powerful membership organizations in the US today - AARP and the NRA. These are two groups with die-hard, devoted members who are absolutely tuned in. Both are so pervasive, it’s easy to just assume that the policy issues they address have always been enough to bring in members by the bushel.
In reality, both organizations grew primarily due to their member benefits first. Each organization successfully utilized magazines, local networking access, education, and other benefits to earn a level of trust with members.
As a result , that member base is engaged and ready to be activated to serve the higher purpose when the need arises. As Peter Murray outlined in a 2013 study, many of the same tactics were also used by Planned Parenthood and AAA, not to mention countless churches across the world.
Member benefits are the stepping stone to purposeful activation. As mentioned, they’re critical in acquisition as well as retention. If nothing else, that educational conference, or even the regular helpful newsletter will be enough to at least maintain most of the member base.
Most organizations offer some sort of discount program, though on a basic level - maybe a few hotel and car rental deals, or a partnership with a local auto dealer.
Expanded discount programs that people will use on a regular basis, are proving to be a significant factor in earning everyday engagement. Which is the type of engagement required to turn a regular member into an advocate.
Here’s our example: Among Access’ Farm Bureau partners, members who use their discount program benefit are saving around $30 per transaction. Plenty of people are skeptical of coupons, but nearly covering the cost of dues in a single transaction is a claim no other benefit can make.
When executed properly (as in, they include a good mix of local offers and are marketed to members), discount programs eliminate dues from the conversation, which changes the basic nature of the relationship between member and organization. These engaged members are far more likely to be open to the higher purposes because the organization has proven itself to be one that adds value.
And it all begins with relevant benefits.
Members Judge Based on Micro, Not the Macro
This isn’t intended to be a sales pitch for private discount programs. Those are just what we do here at Access, and we’ve seen it work, so we offer that example.
The bigger takeaway is that every organization needs to ask itself what its members, customers, and/or employees are going to find regularly relevant. Where can you add value that they won’t find elsewhere?
Organizations such as Farm Bureaus are solving major problems on the macro scale, but most members will make judgments on the micro scale - the world directly in front of them every day. Smart organizations will have a plan to address both as best they can.
Maybe it’s discount programs, maybe it’s just recurring education opportunities or meetings. What’s important is that these benefits communicate some sort of value that positively impacts members at a personal level, eventually bringing them to recognize the higher purposes of who and what it is they’re involved with.
(Health care rally image courtesy of -ted)